Aging at home: How to age-proof a home for an older adult

Old woman struggling to help elderly man up the stairs
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Retirement and old age is a difficult time that can be full of hard decisions. One of the hardest decisions to make is whether to sell the family home and move to a retirement community or to age in place. Aging in place, nestled among the familiar memories, friends and area you know might be the more desirable choice, but it isn't the safest. 

The CDC estimates that at one out of four older people suffer a fall resulting in an injury each year. Over 3 million older people are treated in emergency departments for fall-related injuries. 800,000 of these patients suffer from a head injury or with a broken hip as a consequence of this fall. They also suggest falling once doubles the chance of falling again. So tripping over a rug can have real and lasting damage. 

The most dangerous place in the home is the stairs, with many falls there being fatal. Other common falls come from rolling out of bed, getting dizzy as they stand or tripping over rugs.

The best thing you can do to help an older loved one grow old in the comfort of their home is to age-proof the property with fall prevention, arthritis and muscle weakness in mind. Age-proofing a property can be as simple as removing rugs or as complex as moving bedrooms and bathrooms down to the main level of the house. 

This guide on age-proofing a home will give you a few tips on how to make any room more age friendly and help your loved one grow old in comfort at home. 

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Make doorways wide enough for wheelchairs

Making door frames wider will make it easier for older people to walk through them. The extra width will make it less likely that they'll misjudge the gap and scrape their arms against the door frame or barge their shoulder into it. 

Even just widening to 32 inches will help create a roomy walkway for them and is big enough for wheelchair access should they ever need it. We'd recommend extending to 36 inches if the house can accommodate bigger doorways.

Use offset hinges for wider doorways

Not all houses can accommodate bigger doorways. A great way of making doorways bigger without any structural work is through is by using offset hinges. These hinges are designed to remove the door's width from the doorway, creating a bigger space for people to enter or leave. This effectively gives you an extra 2 inches of space in the doorway. The difference between off-set hinges and regular hinges make can been seen at 38 seconds into this DIY video.

This is a low-cost and low-effort method of creating extra space. 

Change hinge direction so doors open outwards

Changing the hinges so the door opens outward instead of inward can save space in small rooms, like bathrooms and toilets. Instead of the door opening inward into the smaller area, they will open into the bigger room. This gives the person easier access to the small room and will prevent the door from blocking facilities like toilets and sinks. This is a low-cost method of creating that extra space in small cramped rooms. 

Use lever doorknobs or doorknob grips

Switch from normal doorknobs to handles that don't require tight grips. The CDC estimate that 23% of the elderly are diagnosis with some form of arthritis every year. Joint problems like this can make gripping an ordinary doorknob hard. If the person is suffering from some form of muscle weakness, rotating their arms can also be difficult and tiring. 

There are two solutions readily available. The first is by replacing knobs with lever-style handles. This helps because you don't need to grip the handle; you simply apply pressure to open the door. This also makes it easier to open for people in a wheelchair. This option is fairly low cost, and does require some basic level DIY. 

The second option is using doorknob grips. These low-cost, no-DIY devices fit over an existing door knob and allow you to open doorways with a single finger. So, it is ideal for people that can't undertake DIY projects. 

Check the condition of the carpets

If the home has a carpet, making sure it is in good condition will help to prevent trips and falls. Pay close attention to the areas where the carpet joins door frames or common walkways. This area is mostly like to suffer a greater amount of damage and wear due to the higher amount of traffic. You should check areas where people are walk regularly. 

Use a transition strip to tuck in frayed edges

If the carpet has frayed edges or loose threads, these can get tangled and create a tripping hazard for people that can't lift their feet very high off the floor. A carpet-transition strip can be used to tuck in the frayed edges of carpet in doorways. These carpet grippers can provide one to two inches to tuck away the hazardous lose threads. 

As an added bonus they also make the transition from the door frame to the two different floor surfaces more even and uniform. This is fantastic for people who are slightly unsteady on their feet, as it reduces the size of the doorstep. It will also help to hold the carpet in place.

Tighten up a loose carpet with gripping strips and glue

Another thing to consider is how loose the carpet is. Apply pressure to the carpet to see if it moves from the floor, folds over or bunches up. Carpet that moves like this is a potential tripping hazard as the folds can catch a person's foot or even just shift under the weight of their feet.  

A great tool for holding a carpet in place is a carpet gripping strip that can be laid under a carpet on concentrate or wooden floors. These grips can be placed along the room's wall to hold the carpet in place. Special carpet adhesive in a spray can is also available for purchase from most DIY stores. This is an easy way to get carpets to stay in place when laying them. 

Use firm, low-pile carpets 

If you decide to replace the carpet, choosing a firm carpet with a low pile is the safer option. This carpet will provide them with a firm basis for walking and cause fewer problems for people who are less stable on their feet. The low pile also makes it easier to clean. 

Remove slippery floors

Slippery floor surfaces should be removed where possible. In areas like the bathroom or kitchen where the more slippery and water-proof floor is more typical, low-edged rubber back rugs or mats are advised. These provide a solid no-slip surface. 

Also consider changing to less slippery alternatives, like ceramic tiles or laminate flooring. These floors retain less moisture, so are less slippery for elderly homeowners. 

Use low-placed, panel rocker light switches

When replacing light switches for the elderly, it is best to put the switch in a low position on the wall that can be easily accessed from a wheelchair. Wide panel rocker switches are the best choice, as they can be operated with the push of a hand and require very little grip. This just makes it easier of people who have inflamed joints or muscle weakness.

Buying illuminated light switches also make it easier for older adults to find the switch when the room is dark. 

Use high-powered, LED light bulbs

Older adults need a higher quality of light to see, due to the increased chance of eyesight impairment. Low-level lighting puts a strain on the eyes, as you are straining to see objects clearly in the surrounding area. As it is harder to gain a clear perspective, the older adult might miss objects in their path that may trip them up. Providing well-lit and bright areas will lower the chance of falls and mishaps.

We recommend high-powered, energy-efficient LED lightbulbs because this will not only save the strain on their eyes, but also the strain on their wallet. 

High levels of light also have other benefits for seniors beyond visibility. As they are more likely to be less active and stay in doors longer, they will not receive as much natural light. Bright lightbulbs will help simulate sunlight on their bodies, and promote things like proper sleep patterns. 

Create some natural light 

Lighting is just one way you can brighten up a room. There are more basic ways you can increase the natural light levels in a room. The simplest way is to paint the walls in a bright color that will help reflect and natural in the room. A great way to enhance the reflection of natural light is mirrors. Using thin drapes that allow high levels of light to penetrate the fabric will also increase light levels. 

Use task lighting

Task lighting is another great addition to an older adult's home. 

Adjustable tabletop lamps can be used to focus light on where they need it the most, whether that's on the book they are reading, the jigsaw they are solving or on the painting they are creating. This adjustable light source makes it super easy to provide extra light on the task at hand and make it more visible.

Another way to provide task lighting is in drawers, cabinets or wardrobes. This just makes an area that might be naturally dark brighter. The extra light should help them find what they are looking for. 

Stairlifts, ramps and main-floor living

Climbing stairs can be a difficult task when you are older, especially if there are physical difficulties or you rely on a wheelchair. One way to make it easier to access the house is to remove any exterior staircases and fit in some ramps. For indoors stair-lifts are always available. 

Another way to eliminate the challenge of stairways is to move the bedroom to the main level of the house. As every room that is necessary is located on the ground level, the elderly don't have to use stairs on a regular basis. 

Clear pathways and de-clutter spaces

Having a wide open space is important for elderly residents. Not only does it provide a large area for them to walk through, making it easier to walk around the home, there will also be fewer tables or narrow passageways through furniture for them to catch their feet on. 

Having wide spaces with fewer hard edges also provides an added benefit. If the worst does happen and they do fall, they are less likely to bang their head against the corner of a table. 

Fall detection sensors and medical alerts for peace of mind

If you are worried about a senior aging in place, and want some peace of mind there are some great devices on the market that will provide it. A fall detection monitor will inform you when a senior trips or falls. A home medical alert system will help an elderly person receive medical attention when they need it. These devices might not prevent an accident from happening, but they do enable rapid responses to one. 

Richard is a writer and editor. He published his first technology related piece about a Spectrum Sinclair 128K at ten years old, when he was a runner up in a dyslexic poetry competition. He has been writing or researching in and around science and technology since – although the work is usually less lyrical. He has worked on everything from technical manuals for users to white papers and reviews.